Pantheon, AMC+’s first original animated series, came at the heels of Warner Bros. Discovery president David Zaslav slashing almost all of his company’s cartoon slate.
Warner Bros. announced it would prioritize live-action projects, knocking animated programming down a notch as a cost-saving effort. But Pantheon suggests that Zaslav needs to rethink this strategy.
The show, which follows the aftermath of a computer programming visionary’s death and the lives in the real and digital worlds affected by it, exemplifies the vigor of animation, and its ability to articulate concepts and scenes that live-action couldn’t even begin to translate. Streaming now on Amazon Prime, it holds its own against the platform’s heavily marketed but meandering Peripheral.
Pantheon is based on a trio of short stories by prolific sci-fi and fantasy author Ken Liu, who’s perhaps best known for his silkpunk Dandelion Dynasty series. While the show’s aesthetics are reminiscent of Amazon’s Invincible, the eight-episode drama was produced by Titmouse, the folks behind Amazon’s The Boys: Diabolical and The Legend of Vox Machina.
Though its riveting premise is wholly original, Pantheon makes explicit nods to the cyberpunk, techno-thrillers, and sci-fi comedies that have shaped pop culture. Fans of The Matrix, Ex Machina, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ghost in the Shell, and Her, to name just a few, will find familiar callbacks.
In 2001, Logorhythms founder Stephen Holstrom (William Hurt), introduces the concept of “Uploaded Intelligence,” a fatal process that transfers human consciousness to the Cloud. Though your physical body is destroyed, you achieve virtual immortality. But by the time Holstrom dies, U.I. is nowhere near perfect. His employees, desperate to find a solution to death, continue his work through unethical means, including cloning and nonconsensual brain scanning.
Skip to the present and we meet Maddie Kim (Katie Chang), an only child who lost her beloved father, David (Daniel Dae Kim), to cancer two years prior. Maddie is struggling with bullies at a new school, but begins to get strange messages online from someone who can only communicate with emojis. They cause chaos by hacking into her bullies’ devices, and when Maddie’s mother (Rosemarie DeWitt) goes to investigate the mysterious stranger, there’s something about the messages she finds familiar.
Meanwhile, Caspian Keyes (Paul Dano) is a brooding and brilliant 17-year-old fascinated by forums that engage in heated discussions about hacktivism and cybertech conglomerates like Logorhythms, who conspiracy theorists maintain are up to no good. Caspian’s curiosity leads him to Maddie, who posts about her experience with the emoji-talking stranger, and he soon realizes that his hunches about Holstrom’s legacy are right.
We also see the point of view of Vinod Chanda (Raza Jaffrey), an engineer who was kidnapped and forcibly uploaded by rival company Alliance Telecom. His brain lives on in a virtual prison, destined to perform mundane tasks that Alliance can monitor to improve their U.I. technology.
Soon Maddie, Caspian, and their friends and families become embroiled in a full-blown war that transcends reality and unfolds digitally.
But it isn’t just Pantheon’s thought-provoking premise that’ll have you glued to the screen. Dystopian tech aside, the writing is extraordinary. Teenagers talk like teenagers, and adults talk like adults! Together, they comprise a diverse cohort of nuanced individuals brought to life by an excellent cast.
Uploaded Intelligence, though complex, is meticulously detailed in layperson language, making it much less of a headache than it could have been. The science in this sci-fi is smart and doesn’t feel like you’re being given homework, a rarity in philosophical techno-thrillers like The Peripheral and Westworld.
Pantheon builds to an electrifying Season 1 finale, which could serve as a clean-cut ending to a show given almost no marketing support. But, given how much of its fascinating source material wasn’t touched, we hope the plug won’t get pulled just yet.
Pantheon is streaming on Amazon Prime.